A curious phenomenon is taking place throughout the United Kingdom. Last year, we voted to leave the European Union. This year we face the possibility of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom. In the course of these events, the left and right have largely switched places, using similar arguments previously raised by their opponents.
So what is going on? How can we make sense of this? If we can develop a general approach to secession then we can navigate these issues without fear of hypocrisy.
It seems to me that there are two specific reasons which make people want to secede from a larger union, though the two are often intertwined.
First of all, there are the political and economic arguments. Parliamentary democracies seem to settle around an equilibrium and shift between a centre left and centre right government. But if an area within the state consistently favours one side or another, they may feel themselves unrepresented in parliament. Right wingers objected to the European Union because it remains a bastion of centrism. Right wing newspapers have blamed EU regulations for all sorts of nonsense over the years. Now, left wingers went to secede from the United Kingdom because it’s too right wing. I find this entire approach reprehensible.
Democracies depend on the belief in a peaceful transfer of power. When your side loses an election, you cede control to the other side and plan your victory in five years or so. If you want the country to go in a different political direction, you focus on trying to persuade people to vote for your cause. Nicola Sturgeon is clearly a capable and competent person in a time where few politicians seem to be. Imagine how much good she could have done as the leader of the Labour party rather than the SNP.
Leaving a union because you don’t like the direction politics has gone opens up a whole can of worms which nobody should want to loose upon the world, as the right wingers are now discovering. You shouldn’t get to opt out of the results of a democratic election, although rich people and corporations have already been managing for a while now. If rich areas secede in order to avoid subsidising poor areas, things will really start going downhill.
On the other hand, there are the nationalist arguments. If one part of a state has a different culture it may feel alienated and isolated from the whole. This in itself is not grounds for secession. As long as your nationality is not subject to discrimination, your schools teach your language and so on, there is no reason why you can’t coexist with other nationalities within a single state. The potentially awful consequences of dividing up communities with borders, people relocating from one side to another and so on, can only be justified in a situation in which it is absolutely necessary to protect a persecuted ethnicity within a clearly defined geographical region.
Reading this, you may presume I am opposed to both Brexit and Scottish independence. Certainly I am opposed to both British and Scottish nationalism. But for Scotland to leave a United Kingdom which is in itself leaving the European Union is not an act of secession. As long as Scotland remains part of the EU it is maintaining the greater union and refusing to allow itself to be dragged down by English hubris. Before the referendum I was opposed to Scottish independence, but now I see it as the lesser of two evils. If Scotland suffers from leaving the UK, at least the EU will bail them out.